[Common Places] Sanctification: “This Is to Preach Christ”

Michael Allen on June 22nd, 2017. Tagged under ,,.

Michael Allen

Michael Allen (Ph.D., Wheaton College) is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of numerous books and articles and serves as a Presbyterian teaching elder. With Scott Swain, he serves as general editor for the New Studies in Dogmatics series published by Zondervan Academic.

Our current series, Sanctification, looks at elements of the forthcoming volume by Michael Allen in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

sanctificationListening to Augustine

In the year 413, Augustine wrote a small work entitled “On Faith and Works” (De fide et operibus). He responded to some men who “think that it is wrong and even absurd that one should first be taught how to live a Christian life and then be baptized. They think rather that the sacrament of baptism should come first: the teaching concerning morals and the life of a Christian should follow afterwards.”[i]  Augustine suggests that there are three concerns to be addressed. We do well to note how he distinguishes the key issues without in any way dismissing one for the sake of another. All are worthy of our attention, because they flow from biblical teaching.

Augustine considers, first, whether or not biblical prophecies regarding the mixed nature of the church point toward the extraneous nature of discipline within the church. “Let no man interpret the passages of Holy Scripture which speak of the present or future existence of good and bad in the Church as meaning that the discipline or vigilance of the Church ought to be relaxed or dispensed with.”[ii]  Augustine calls discipline a “merciful severity,” and he insists that Jesus and the apostles were examples of pastors who disciplined their flock well.[iii]  He turns, second, to ask whether or not catechumens should be taught only faith, leaving morals for later. Augustine turns to the examples of the apostles yet again, arguing that they typically prioritized faith before morals and yet clearly taught both to their audiences (as, e.g., in Peter’s Pentecost sermon). “Both are necessary, morals and faith, for they are mutually connected.”[iv] Only then, third, does Augustine consider the lengthy exegetical debate regarding Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Augustine argues against those who speak of “faith alone” uniting one to God, yet it is clear that he is protesting what he has earlier called “dead faith,” not a “living faith” alone.

Looking to the Whole Christ

Augustine is speaking to those Protestants today and those contemporaries of his own day who would suggest the existence of a “carnal Christian,” someone who entrusts their eternity to Christ yet refuses to repent of their earthly refusal to entrust themselves to him, as well as to those who might suggest that repentance comes spontaneously and may not be demanded or summoned by Christian exhortation (e.g. in so-called Radical Lutheranism). So what of baptizing the unrepentant? “It is not we who keep them from coming to Christ: rather, we prove to them from their own lips that it is they who do not wish to come to Christ. We do not forbid them to believe in Christ, but we show them that it is they who do not want to believe in Christ.”[v] We dare not fail to point to Christ, but we must also be alert to the totality of who Christ is and the breadth of what Christ has done, is doing, and will do for his redeemed.

Notably, however, and of greatest concern for our approach to all matters pertaining to holiness is the way that Augustine relates this moral concern to divine action and the gracious provision of the gospel. For him, Christology is the ultimate foundation.

“This is to preach Christ: to say not only what one must believe about Christ but also how one must live who wishes to be joined to the body of Christ; to say, in fact, everything that one must believe about Christ, not only whose Son He is, from whom He takes His divinity, from whom His humanity, what things He has suffered and why, what His resurrection means to us, what is the gift of the Spirit which He has promised and given to believers, but also what kind of members, of whom He is the head, He desires, he forms, loves, sets free, and leads to eternal life and glory.”[vi]

Augustine’s famous use of the term totus Christus or the “whole Christ” becomes apparent here. The body of Christ is really part of Christ’s story, not, strictly speaking, as the incarnate one but as the object of his favor and the united partner of his fellowship and love. As such, morality and ethics are characterized here as tenets of faith: we believe that “He desires, he forms, loves, sets free, and leads to eternal life and glory.” Note, however, that our lives being a part of the good news of Christ does not mean in any way that we do not live our lives. No, he is speaking of “how one must live”—he is affirming our real agency.

A Reformed Return to the Holiness of Christ

This oft-overlooked quotation from Augustine serves as the most frequently noted line in my book. While his approach to justification and sanctification will have to be nuanced still further along lines suggested by the early reformers and developed in classical Reformed theology, his homiletical guide to preaching Christ locates the (trans)formation of his body within his own promised action on their behalf. In so doing he helps us to hear the word of sanctification as a gospel promise before we consider it as a moral summons.

We ought to note that we will be drawing resources, therefore, from the catholic past (like the witness of Augustine) and Reformed heritage to articulate both the history of salvation (historia salutis) and the order of salvation (ordo salutis). In recent years some within the Reformed tradition have suggested that these two analytic frameworks sit uneasily with each other. Worries of this sort are not without their significance. Reflection upon the variegated shape of covenantal history can seemingly divvy up the divine work if their unity ceases to be appreciated. Such myopia always leads to existential or sociological domination to fill the void. Thus, we do well to remain steadfastly alert to the breadth and wholeness (that is, the catholicity) of the Christ’s giving in this regard.

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Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of numerous books and articles and serves as a Presbyterian teaching elder. With Scott Swain, he serves as general editor for the New Studies in Dogmatics series published by Zondervan Academic.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Sanctification, looks at elements of the forthcoming volume by Michael Allen in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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sanctificationLearn more about Sanctification by Michael Allen. Purchase your copy today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Christian Book.

 

 

 

[i] Augustine, On Faith and Works (Ancient Christian Writers 48; trans. Gregory Lombardo; New York: Newman, 1988), 7 (I.1).

[ii] Ibid., 8 (II.3) 54 (XXVII.49).

[iii] Ibid., 9-10 (III.3-4).

[iv] Ibid., 27 (XIII.20).

[v] Ibid., 38 (XVII.31).

[vi] Ibid., 20 (IX.14).